As ISIS threat grows, Intelligence Must Improve

Highlighting a summer of excuses and inaction as a new caliphate consumed key territory in the Middle East, President Obama says the terrorist army’s advance is more “rapid than the intelligence estimates.” That might make a great excuse for reactionary airstrikes in Iraq, but it has nothing to do with reality.

The damage ISIS is causing outpaces the President’s ability to understand intelligence, because its organizational foundation is a maze, not a chain of command. The Commander-in-Chief has access to the work product of thousands of highly-skilled individuals, but their talents are lost in a bureaucratic maze.

The nation’s $50 billion intelligence operation is a labyrinth of 17 agencies, spanning the globe to include military, law enforcement, homeland security, diplomatic and other domestic entities of the government. This bureaucratic hydra reduces the clarity of the mission.  When everyone is in charge, nobody is. Can anyone say who is ultimately accountable for stopping an ISIS attack on American soil?

The clearest mission in the government is the Secret Service, where I served under three Presidents. During complex Presidential events such as inaugurations or foreign visits, people would often ask how we secured an entire city or country.   The answer is we did not. The Secret Service coordinated security primarily with military and law enforcement partners to expand outward from a precise point.  There was no time to get into bureaucratic squabbles over whose budget funded what personnel and assets.  Individual agents are given wide latitude to protect the President, but they are also responsible for ensuring he gets to the next event safely.  This is a powerful incentive to push through bureaucratic obstacles. That incentive is watered down as it trickles through the many branches of the intelligence community where nobody is in charge.

The President has demonstrated that he is unaccountable by blaming inaction in Iraq on faulty intelligence.  And it is hard to say he is in charge when he is so misinformed. President Obama compared Al-Qaeda-linked militants to junior varsity basketball players in January, yet ISIS reported the month before that it controlled eight times as many cities in 2013 compared to 2012.

Unlike Al-Qaeda terrorists operating in cells in other countries with their leaders hidden in caves, ISIS is an open book. Instead of issuing Fatwas, they publish open-source reports intended to recruit an army. It is absurd to believe that military intelligence or the CIA is not able to corroborate claims which are available on a google search.

The 9/11 Commission report ten years ago proposed sweeping changes in the intelligence community, most notably the creation of a National Intelligence Director. Operating under the Office of the National Intelligence Director, a designee of the director delivers the President’s daily brief, a White House protocol that dates back to the Truman Administration. One would think that accountability in this Administration would be enhanced somewhat if the actual Director of National Intelligence, James R. Clapper, would be informing the President daily of the dangers of this new iteration of global terror. This is a sign of larger management problems.

Rather than a driving force for integration and information sharing, the national intelligence office is more like an org chart, imposing an additional layer of bureaucracy on top of existing activities.  Indeed, the ten-year progress report of the 9/11 commission released last month warns of this mission creep.   Among its recommendations is a continuing need for the director to manage intelligence as a “cohesive entity.” One of those 16 entities is the Department of Homeland Security.

The Department of Homeland Security’s intelligence unit defines their mission as “understanding recent threats in a broader, global, or historical perspective” so there is a strategy for preventing a domestic terrorist attack. It’s hard to conduct oversight on Homeland Security when it reports to 92 Congressional committees and subcommittees, wasting time and resources. Who knows what they are doing about ISIS. Ten years after the 9/11 commission recommended creating a single, principal point of oversight the number of committees has increased.

In a recent interview, the President expressed concern about the “day after” regarding Middle East interventions like Libya that have unintended consequences.  The Administration must take steps the day before to ensure that the fog of bureaucracy does not eclipse the quality of intelligence that gets to the President’s desk.   The ISIS threat to the U.S. is growing. Bombing is an act of war. The blame does not lie with faulty intelligence. It is a bureaucratic, stove-piped system that answers to nobody, because nobody is in charge. It is the duty of the Commander-in-Chief to improve the system, not make excuses.

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